A group of leading science journalists has urged their media colleagues not to report on South Africa's current measles outbreak by resurrecting ''completely false'' claims that the vaccine is dangerous.
South African radio, print and internet sites have been resurrecting the ''long-disproven'' claim that the measles vaccine can cause autism, a little-understood and complex neurobiological disorder which normally surfaces in young children, and for which there is no cure.
''South Africans have already died in part because the media was seduced by HIV/Aids dissidents and South Africans don't need the same thing to happen again with measles,'' said the South African Science Journalists Association (SASJA) in a press statement this week.
''We understand that sometimes the dissidents and conspiracy theorists are very entertaining. This can make the dissidents attractive to the media for the wrong reasons. The problem is that legitimate scientists may have less puffery but they offer solid evidence that can and does improve peoples' lives. We understand the worries and fears of parents with autistic children, who are trying to make sense of their diagnosis. But the fact is that when it comes to the measles vaccine, the doom-sayers are wrong. Vaccines save lives,'' said SASJA president Christina Scott.
Measles in media
SASJA executive member George Claassen, who lectures in science journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, began the ''measles in the media'' campaign after listening to a mother who was given airtime on Cape Talk and 702 radio this week to vent her claims that the measles vaccine had somehow triggered autism in her child.
''The researchers who originally made the claim that there was a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination were found to be unethical on numerous counts. They are facing serious court cases,'' warned Claassen, who writes the regular column Kwakoskoop in the By supplement of Beeld, Die Burger and Volksblad.
''Not once did the talk show presenter point out that the person who began this ongoing rumour that vaccines cause autism has been completely discredited. If media people don't set boundaries, then this kind of rumour can spread and our children and grandchildren can risk serious illness and sometimes lifelong disabilities if they do not get vaccinated,'' Claassen said.
''Most media fall prey to this hype at one point or another,'' said Scott, who presents Science Matters on SAfm on Thursday nights.
The Mail & Guardian newspaper, for example, published a report by Nechama Brodie in August last year which buried the worrying news that health agencies in the US and Europe had reported a rise in measles cases.
Instead, the opening paragraph claimed that ''fresh controversy is brewing over the issue of childhood vaccinations'' and focused on a non-scientist, an American actress who was famous for posing in Playboy magazine, as the source of information. (See http://www.mg.co.za/article/2008-08-05-to-vaccinate-or)
''A homeopath is quoted in the Mail & Guardian article, but none of South Africa's excellent measles researchers were interviewed. That's a problem in itself,'' Scott said.
Adele Baleta, a South African health journalist and correspondent for leading international medical journal The Lancet, noted that Andrew Wakefield, the lead author of the original Lancet ''research'' claiming a link between measles and autism, concealed his unusual source of funding: trial lawyers who wanted evidence of a link so they could sue for damages.
''Wakefield deliberately concealed scientific results that contradicted his claims, manipulated patient data and misreported results - he was a fraud,'' she said.
An international health database collection, the Cochrane Library, has analysed the issue and concluded that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has safely prevented diseases that still carry a heavy burden of death and complications. The Cochrane Library warns that the Wakefield measles-autism hoax has brought a nearly-eradicated diseases back into our society.
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